Inside Pitch: Looking Toward 2010

While the 2009 season came to a disappointing end, there's no time to rest, as the Tigers are now looking toward building the club for 2010.

INSIDE PITCH Detroit went as far as its pitching could take it this season, which was to the 163rd game of the season. Hitting problems finally did in the team, and that's why the offense will be the primary area for the organization to address in the offseason.

The Tigers entered the 2009 season believing they had taken care of a defensive deficiency with the acquisition of a new catcher and a new shortstop and by shifting Brandon Inge back to third. Check, check and check.

The pitching was shored up as well, and while it became a late-season concern, that happens to every team every year.

The offense, it was believed, was strong. Not so.

Left fielder Carlos Guillen was a non-factor until the final two months of the season, when his sore right shoulder began to heal enough to get him first back to the plate and then back on the field. Right fielder Magglio Ordonez faltered badly in the first half, only to recover and hit .400 over the last two months of the season.

His $18 million option for 2010 kicked in, but the way he ended the season, it would seem Ordonez will be only slightly overpaid. A continuation would provide Detroit with someone to get on base ahead of cleanup hitter Miguel Cabrera.

Cabrera presents his own problem. He was picked up at home by police due to a call by his wife at 6 a.m. with a .26 blood-alcohol level on the eve of an important game. Whether that was an aberration or the start of a disturbing trend will be played out over time.

The Tigers waited all year for someone to provide a consistent power companion to Cabrera. They're still waiting, and the addition of a 25- to 30-homer slugger could be the primary goal of the organization this winter, possibly at the expense of pitching.

Detroit picked up DH Aubrey Huff to address a left-handed power shortage, and he proved to be of little help. But the Tigers may have found a valuable asset in outfielder Ryan Raburn, who showed some power and consistency and will challenge for a full-time role in the spring.

A full season of a healthy Guillen would help. And Inge must heal up his sore left patellar tendon so he can provide the team two half-seasons like his first half of 2009.

Another thing the club must think about is moving center fielder Curtis Granderson out of the leadoff spot, which he outgrew this season. He reached 30 home runs, but his batting average and on-base percentage no longer profile him as a leadoff man. That role might go to Raburn, if he becomes a full-time player. Having Granderson hit sixth or seventh, or even third if his average goes up, would bolster the bottom of the lineup. If Raburn isn't the answer, Detroit must find a leadoff hitter.

There are payroll concerns as well because Detroit had non-productive assets such as left-hander Dontrelle Willis (anxiety disorder), right-hander Jeremy Bonderman (shoulder surgery recovery) and lefty Nate Robertson (elbow surgery, ineffectiveness). Willis and Robertson have one season left on three-year deals.

Attendance fell from 3 million to 2.5 million. How much owner Mike Ilitch is willing to pay from his own pocket will determine how many of the Tigers' six free agents they retain. In one or two cases, upcoming minor league players may be seen as productive, cheaper alternatives.

A rotation anchored by right-handers Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello and Edwin Jackson looks pretty good right now, but the back end of the bullpen is a question mark. Setup man Brandon Lyon and closer Fernando Rodney are both free agents.

NOTES, QUOTES

--First base coach Andy Van Slyke will not return next season, the Tigers announced Oct. 9. Van Slyke had been on the coaching staff for four years.

--C Gerald Laird batted six times in Detroit's final game of the season and ended five innings. Hitting coach Lloyd McClendon will have to get Laird to make changes that his Texas counterpart, Rudy Jaramillo, could not. Laird must escape his power-hitter mentality and go the other way or hit the ball on the ground to take advantage of the fact he's a relatively fast catcher.

--RHP Edwin Jackson topped 200 innings for the first time in his career but seemed to hit a wall in mid-August. He reached a career high with 161 strikeouts and reduced his walks, to 70, for the third year in a row, but his slider was inconsistent at the end and his command of his fastball was spotty. He was 1-3 over his last five starts.

--CF Curtis Granderson hit a career-high 30 home runs and drove in 71 runs, primarily as a leadoff batter, but his batting average (.249) and on-base percentage (.327) were low for a top-of-the-order hitter. He seems to be settling in as hitter who walks 70 times a season and strikeouts out 140 times. Detroit might be tempted to move him down in the batting order if it can find a suitable replacement as the leadoff man.

--INF Ramon Santiago played a bigger role this season than most expected him to, just as manager Jim Leyland predicted in spring training. Santiago appeared in a career-high 93 games, most of them as a shortstop, and batted a career-best 262 times. Santiago, who added weight and strength last winter, hit .267 but reached career peaks with seven home runs and 35 RBIs. He showed an ability to drag-bunt and was a tough out in the clutch.

--RHP Fernando Rodney had an exceptional season entering his free agent year, saving 37 games and muffing just one. Rodney was the losing pitcher in Detroit's divisional title playoff game with Minnesota but worked a season-high three innings in the 12-inning game. Rodney, who will pitch at 33 next season, had a 4.40 ERA, but his ERA in save situations was less than 2.20.

--UT Don Kelly may have earned consideration as a utility player for somebody next season. Kelly, who began the season as a non-roster player in a return to the Detroit organization, was called up in mid-year to take advantage of his versatility in a string of games against National League opponents. He was added to the roster again in September and played a key role in the divisional playoff game at Minnesota. Kelly entered as a pinch runner when PH Aubrey Huff drew a walk with one out in the 10th inning. The wisdom of that move was proved when Kelly scored from first on a two-out double to left by 3B Brandon Inge. Kelly, a left-handed batter, hit with one out in the 12th and singled to center, moving 1B Miguel Cabrera to third and taking second on the throw.

BY THE NUMBERS: 3 -- Teams since 1901 that have blown a three-game lead with four scheduled games to play in a season. However, the 2009 Tigers are the only one to actually lose first place, as 1980 Astros and the 1982 Brewers both won tiebreakers to make the playoffs.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It was the best game by far that I ever played. But no matter what we did, it just wasn't meant to be." -- 3B Brandon Inge, who made a sensational diving stop to prevent the winning run from scoring in the ninth inning and doubled home the go-ahead run in the 10th of the division tiebreaker game Oct. 6 at Minnesota. The Twins won 6-5 in 12 innings.


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